The mountains of the Caucasus, the area's remoteness, and its long incorporation in a Russian-dominated empire make it singularly little known in the West. And yet, the region is also one of the most fascinating on earth, what with its intense diversity of languages, its wild beauty, and its celebrated liquors. In recent years, it has also become one of the most troubled regions, as ethnic conflicts have proliferated.

Goldenberg, a journalist working for the Guardian, provides an excellent introduction to the Caucasus, mixing scholarship and personal observation. She makes sense of the devastating civil war in Georgia and offers a balanced account of the Azerbaijan-Armenia war. But perhaps the most valuable section deals with the North Caucasus, a region nominally part of Russia but seething with ethnic and territorial problems, as well as an Islamic revival. To those mystified by the Russian assault on Chechenya, she provides a helpful introduction: how they provided most of Shamil's troops resisting Russian conquest in the mid-nineteenth century, how they suffered from deportation to Central Asia at Stalin's hands, and declared independence in 1991. Goldenberg sketches a vivid portrait of Dzhokar Dudayev, the Chechens' military strongman, and the eccentric, violent state he has established. Two examples: his bodyguard consists mainly of of hardened criminals he sprung from jail and his foreign minister comes from the Chechen population living in Jordan.